Picturing Ann Beattie
Susan Jaret McKinstry
The speakers in Ann Beattie's early work often seemed to miss the point of their stories. And so did many readers. Like other so-called minimalist New Yorker writers, Beattie contravenes our generic expectations. However, many critics have appreciated Beattie's unconventional fictions. Noting in a 1979 review of Secrets and Surprises that "most of Miss Beattie's stories end without a feeling of closure," Anatole Broyard wondered "whether it is unreasonable to expect closure nowadays. . . . Perhaps fiction is being discriminated against when we looked to it to satisfy orderly expectations (C17). Margaret Atwood, reviewing The Burning House in 1982, claimed that "these stories are not of suspense but of suspension" (34). Carolyn Porter wrote that Beattie's "mastery of the short story derives from the sensibility of a novelist of manners" whose "most marked talent is for eliminating discrete chunks of exposition" ( 1985, 11-12). Thomas Griffith, in the Atlantic Monthly, praised the New Yorker fiction . . . in its rejection of moralizing and pat endings. . . . Nothing is ever summed up, or brought to an end; a moment passes and is wryly commented upon. It is a fictional approximation of value-free science" ( 1980, 28).
However, now minimalism is under attack as a dead end, a writerly trick, a failure of authorial imagination, a passed fad. As John Aldridge complains, Beattie may be a "brilliant describer" of details ( 1992, 58), but those details do not add up to anything, and "if the unexamined life is not worth living, the undeveloped character is finally not worth reading about" (70).
In point of fact, minimalism never intended to reduce literature to flatness, to gaps filled only grudgingly by spare-tongued writers. Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1923 that he was discovering "a new theory that you could omit anything if you knew what you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood" ( Baker 1972, 165). Rather than produce meaningless writing, minimalism is meant to pro-